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In Northwest Ohio, a Mixed Picture on Jobs

Posted By David Brousell, December 16, 2014 at 7:43 AM, in Category: Next-Generation Leadership and the Changing Workforce

William J. Bernard, Jr., president and chief executive of Surface Combustion, Inc., a 111-employee manufacturer of thermal processing equipment in Maumee, in northwest Ohio, is proud to be in manufacturing and is optimistic about the future of the industry in the U.S.

Bernard, who describes himself as a materials scientist, has been in manufacturing for more than 40 years. Two sons, William and Ben, both in their late 30s, work with him at the company and share his optimism. But the senior Bernard has seen the cycles, the ups and downs, the good times and the not so good times. Today, he feels manufacturing in the U.S. is “resurging”, making its way back from a long period of offshoring.

Yet, challenges remain, and one of the most significant is finding qualified people for a variety of mechanical and electrical jobs. Surface Combustion, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year, currently has 15 open jobs. “We give them the tape measure test,” says Bernard, half-jokingly. “It’s hard to find qualified people.”

The difficulty in finding and recruiting workers was a pervasive theme during a tour I took last week of manufacturing companies in northwest Ohio organized by the Regional Growth Partnership, a private economic development group serving the Toledo region and 17 northwest counties in the state. According to a recent study commissioned by the partnership, the number of manufacturing jobs in the region this year grew by 3.4% to 121,193, from 117,202 in 2013. The jobs picture was better in the Toledo metropolitan area itself, which grew jobs by 6.1% to 50,577 in 2014, from 47,689 in 2013. Projected out to 2023, however, the trend line for the region and nationwide, according to the study, will be flat with perhaps some cyclical variation.

But the degree of difficulty in filling whatever new jobs there are can vary by type and size of company.

First Solar, a more than $3 billion manufacturer of solar panels in Perrysville, has announced that that it will be adding 200,000 square feet of manufacturing space to its current 1-million square foot facility. The result is the creation of 125 jobs.

While acknowledging the problem of finding qualified workers, Mike Koralewski, vice president of site operations in Perrysburg, says that First Solar recently held a job fair and 700 people showed up. “I’m 100% confident that we will be able to fill the positions,” he said.

The jobs picture is different, and on a very different scale, at IMCO Carbide Tool, Inc., also in Perrysburg. The company will be expanding its 25,000-square foot factory by 50% as the result of consolidation with another plant in Michigan and will be adding three people next month.

“People is the biggest issue,” says Perry L. Osburn, president. “Grinding, measuring requires math skills. We always manage to find people, but the skill levels are not always the same.”

Yet another version of the jobs situation in northwest Ohio is playing out at GM Powertrain, where the auto maker builds 5,600 transmissions a day in a 2-million square foot, highly automated plant.

The union-based factory, which was opened in 1916 but rebuilt eight years ago, is planning to add 100 people to its 2,000-strong workforce which plant manager Joseph M. Choate describes as “bi-modal” – with one group 55 years of age and older and a second group between the ages of 25 and 30.

The way work is organized in GM Powertrain has been changing very dramatically, with people now organized in teams that have greater accountability for what happens on the plant floor. “And nobody does the same job all day,” says Choate. 

He’s confident that GM Powertrain will have no problem in filling the new jobs. “We have a waiting pool of people,” he says.

Written by David Brousell

Global Vice President, General Manager and Editorial Director of the Manufacturing Leadership Council

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I have a great deal of respect for individuals like Mr. Bernard and his family. The challenge of finding good employees, particularly in good times is a common challenge, particularly among mid-sized manufacturing companies. It’s the same challenge that several of the companies I coach face. Since my compensation is tied to their results, I have more than a casual interest in their success.
While mid-sized companies have their own unique challenges, they also have unique attributes. They tend to be companies where everyone knows one another. The key is to take this advantage and translate it into a competitive advantage, by making the economics of the business transparent, and involving all employees to understand, improve and participate in the economics of the business. Have all employees help with the challenges the business face, including attracting new hires. After all, these employees have a vested interest in the company and the quality of the employees the company hires. Often referred to as open-book, over the past 20+ years, I have seen this work in over 300 small / medium sized privately held companies I have. I am working with a manufacturing company in Oklahoma that had been struggling to find enough welders. But with the support of their employees, they have all the new hires they need, and the quality of those new employees have been very good.
These Harvard Business Review articles provide more background:
The HBR third article speaks about what we call, Customer-Centric Open Book©, which has been especially effective, by getting the input of both customers and employees. More information and case studies are available at www.openbookcoaching.com, including the Oklahoma manufacturer I mentioned. I hope this input is helpful.
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